Voluntary poverty — it could save your life, but what a hard sell

Children and mom from the Depression

Simple living can be comfortable, but are we ready to voluntarily seek out poverty just to survive after peak oil?

Poverty is finding middle class families these days these days through unemployment, bankruptcy and home foreclosure, whether they like it or not. And mostly, they don’t like it.

But John Michael Greer, author of this year’s The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered and several previous books on surviving peak oil, suggests that those who haven’t found poverty yet might want to seek it out for their own good.

Poor and lovin’ it

In “How Not to Play the Game,” Greer recommends preparing our households for a future of doing with fewer products and services from the marketplace once peak oil puts an end to our current age of abundance. As we look forward to Greer’s economy of “scarcity industrialism,” he urges us to develop the kind of DIY skills found in issues of Mother Earth News from the 1970s that he has dubbed Green Wizardry.

Knowing how to grow and preserve our own food is only the start. For example, Greer has also shown Green Wizards how to make an ultra low-tech cook stove in a wooden box using heated rocks as a cooking source.

And don’t stop there. Those “who know how to insulate and weatherize, and provide the small amount of energy they need from homescale sources, will be able to ignore the decline of the electrical grid,” Greer says. “Those who learn how to get the things they need from salvage, instead of relying on global supply chains fed from rapidly depleting resource stocks, will be able to stand aside as what’s left of the global economy circles the drain and goes down it.”

But how to protect our self-sufficient homestead from a dictatorial government or marauding zombie bikers who might take it all away once the sh*t hits the fan? That’s simple: just make yourself an unattractive target. As Greer puts it,

What we are talking about, to borrow a phrase from Henry David Thoreau, is voluntary poverty. The founders of the modern movement of “voluntary simplicity” backed away uncomfortably from the noun in Thoreau’s phrase, and thereby did themselves and their movement a huge disservice; it’s all too easy to turn “voluntary simplicity” into a sales pitch for yet another round of allegedly simple products at fashionably high prices. The concept of voluntary poverty does not lend itself anything like so well to such evasions. The idea, Thoreau’s idea, is to deliberately embrace being poor, in every material sense, in order to avoid the common fate of being possessed by your possessions.

As Greer says, without many modern comforts you can still live a comfortable life “when your food comes from a backyard garden, your heat comes from a wood stove, and your job comes from refurbishing salvage.”

Free your mind

A thrifty, self-sufficient life may be comfortable physically, but it’s not a middle-class lifestyle, as Greer concedes. True household self-sufficiency — homesteading or its urban variety — is more like monasticism, the lifestyle of a Benedictine or Zen monk who has taken a vow of poverty and committed himself to simple living for a higher cause.

And what isn’t comfortable about living in poverty is the loss of status. Plenty of people like to claim that “I don’t care what other people think about me,” but it’s clear from the way most Americans act that they care very much about status, reflected in conspicuous consumption from Versace to Nike to Apple.

Adbusters baby branded

Big brands are not just on our bodies -- they're inside our heads, defining the good life. Would we die for them? Photo: Adbusters.

Even for Greer’s likely audience of people interested in peak oil prep and open to a message of simple living — and I count myself as one — if we’re honest with ourselves, I don’t think many of us are quite ready yet to leave behind all the ideas of the good life we’ve known since childhood and embrace what society would define as personal failure.

Indeed, as Adbusters magazine has so ably demonstrated, corporate marketers have done so well at getting inside our heads that most of us judge the good, the true and especially the beautiful by what brand advertising has taught us.

I like the idea of transitioning out of the money economy for philosophical reasons. I’d like to free my mind from money, status-seeking and corporate brainwashing. Many Americans who are in financial distress right now also might find it appealing to find some relief from the stress of juggling bills that get harder to pay each month as the economy continues to stagnate.

But to get to a life beyond money, and to do it with joy rather than resentment, will take a huge mind-shift. And looking to the past might help.

There’s a long tradition of simple living or even voluntary poverty in the West going back before today’s Amish and Old Order Mennonites through Tolstoy and St. Francis of Assisi all the way to down to the ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Diogenes. The latter was such a showboat that he lived in a barrel in the agora of Athens just to make sure everybody knew how much he was doing without.

But none of the great ascetics of the past embraced poverty merely as a way to survive in a difficult economy. Instead, there was always that higher motivation: to get closer to God, to reach enlightenment, to discover absolute truth.

Survival — a surprisingly crappy motivator

My guess is that if modern Americans were to do something so opposed to our national character as to go beyond the fashionable slow food, slow work and slow sex of the simple living movement to brand ourselves with the straight-up shame of poverty, we’d need to have a better reason to do it than mere survival.

A people brought up on the Horatio Alger dream of hard work, equal opportunity and upward mobility won’t soon walk around in sackcloth and ashes just to avoid notice by mutant zombie bikers. Sad to say, I think many Americans would choose to die first than to give up on their middle-class identity.

Indeed, we’ve shown that we’re perfectly ready to give our lives in the cause of maintaining our social status. It’s not only the Japanese salaryman who’s drawn to hari-kari when he loses his job. Plenty of Americans have also sought refuge in an early grave to avoid the ignominy of bankruptcy or otherwise appearing to fall out of the middle class.

I’m sure that Greer, who is himself a spiritual person (he heads an American branch of the ancient Celtic nature-faith of Druidry), has some ideas on what a higher cause than mere survival could be to embrace poverty as a welcome form of spiritual liberation — a way to save your soul, not just to save your ass.

Meantime, the rest of us can do worse than to follow Greer’s trail to Henry David Thoreau himself, the sage of Walden known to his contemporaries as “Hank the Crank”:

MOST OF THE LUXURIES, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward…The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we shall call voluntary poverty.

— Erik Curren

You might also enjoy


  1. says

    I want to thank you for your insight, Eric. I’ve been quietly assuming that more and more people are likely to accept poverty when they have no other choice, but I’m afraid you are right. I now suspect that the only way to be happy while poor is to embrace poverty voluntarily. Most of us who have no choice will continue to scratch and claw to get back to some semblance of the life we were always taught was “good,” complete with heat pumps, iPhones, and Miatas. How sad.

    • says

      Yes, Lee, I think we as Americans are now still in the wheel-spinning stage, trying to get back what we’ve lost since 2008 and waiting for the economy to return to “normal.” But more and more of us do seem to be giving up on that fantasy, while realizing that our old lives may not have made us very happy anyway. Maybe soon “poor” won’t be such a shameful state.

  2. Auntiegrav says

    I’ve covered this many times in comments before. Greer is right, but it doesn’t have to be ‘sold’. First, we have to give up on the idea that human trends are intentional. Humans will do what they do, and make up reasons for it later. That poverty breeds wisdom is a “fooled by randomness” idea. It discounts all of the stupid poor people. Since the vast majority of humans have always been poor, it follows that the most likely place for the ones we remember would be drawn from that pool. People are smart and stupid, pretty much evenly distributed across demographics.
    I digress..back to the point about poverty: The concept of accumulated wealth becomes a problem in basic thermodynamics. Any ‘hot’ spots will shed energy, and ‘cold’ spots will suck it up. The greater the differences between rich and poor, the faster the rate of change will be toward redistribution. Redistribution among such a large poor population that we already have in the world will only result in everyone having very little wealth accumulated.
    Anyone who intends to survive should move to where people are already accustomed to BEING poor. You cannot ‘sell’ poverty to those who have too much. They will force themselves to fail in their own time, while those who already are used to being poor will simply continue to be poor.
    The scare mongering is only to get those with enough wealth to buy more stuff to pretend they can protect their ‘hard earned’ property.
    Wealth redistribution will happen on its own. The question is, “How much that has been accumulated is actually worth anything to the future of the species or the planet?” Most of the accumulated wealth is just paper with ink on it and buildings in places that they don’t need to be. (Housing has been built where it is only useful with cheap gas). What’s left that is really valuable?
    Muscle power
    hand tools

    The hordes of zombies and gangs aren’t going to be the poor people. They are going to consist of those who are more afraid of life in poverty than they are of death. Thanks to advertising, that’s pretty much anyone who watches TV.

    • says

      I like how you characterize much of today’s wealth as paper or misplaced buildings. As some of us discussed after our recent piece on the film version of the Fountainhead, today’s high-rise apartment and office buildings are likely to become tomorrow’s stranded assets, nearly worthless as real estate but valuable only for massive amounts of scrap. Those of us lucky enough to have any of what today’s economy considers to be assets might be well advised to consider converting them into the assets that will hold value in a much lower energy economy, like the kind of DIY skills Greer recommends.

    • Elvia Moon says

      Excellent comment, Auntigrav. ‘Poverty’ is relative. As one that lived for decades in the back country relying on skills considered antiquated by modern perspective, I prepare to return after a ten-year ‘urban experiment’ which taught me much about human behavior and thinking. And reaffirmed why I ‘dropped out’ so long ago. Considered impoverished then (and again shortly), I considered myself rich with the self-satisfaction of providing for my own existence without modern trappings and having the associated time and freedom to enjoy life. Although ‘wealth’ is typically conceived in monetary terms, other aspects of life may have value far more important and cherished. ‘Impoverished’? Voluntary simplicity often confers wealth far more valuable than the material accumulations that support our modern societies.
      Thank you for the excellent post and comments.

  3. Doug W. says

    Voluntary simplicity is the half way house to voluntary poverty. Helen and Scott Nearing were wonder examples of a joyful voluntary poverty. I don’t think we give people enough credit. Until 70 or 80 years ago the majority of Americans were thrifty and lived simply, thus the motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”.

    As we proceed into crisis things may flip and we will have “keeping down with the Joneses”. This was common in the back to the land movement of 40 or 50 yeas ago. If someone had found a good deal for $10, someone else would invariably say they got theirs for $5 or they knew where you could have gotten it for free!

    In any case, taking whatever steps we are comfortable taking now, will ease our personal slide down the back side of Hubbert’s peak.

    • says

      What a great idea, “Keeping down with the Joneses.” I still remember when I was a kid how the adults would compete to see who could get something cheapest, or even do without for a longer period. Americans used to be very thrifty people until after WWII, when media started hitting us big time with ads and urging us to consume ever more. So it makes sense that with the right enc ouragement, Americans could start to see the benefit in going back the other way. And Transition could do a lot to help that, I think.

  4. Michael says

    Erik, you wrote that “[…] none of the great ascetics of the past embraced poverty merely as a way to survive in a difficult economy.”

    That’s true mainly because, as Mr. Greer has argued elsewhere on his blog, there was no economy as we know it. Which is to say, there was no industrial economy where an average citizen could command the amount of energy we can today.

    There is distinction to be made here between relative and absolute poverty, where Greer argues in favor of the former, and some the examples you cite above favor the latter. He argues that a person can still be comfortable in poverty relative to what we have now (like the Mennonites), but I would argue that discomfort is an integral part of pursuing “higher motivations” (such as monasticism.)

    You are probably correct that some will choose death over poverty, but I suspect that survival is a much more powerful motivator than you give it credit for in this piece. I guess we’ll find out.

    • says

      Michael, I hope that people will start to take survival more seriously than social status very soon. And I think a de-brainwashing effort is urgently needed now while there’s still time before questions of physical survival become more pressing.

      You make a good point about relative vs absolute poverty. I guess in some ways Louis XIV wouldn’t be considered all that rich today, compared to the average American millionaire (not to mention billionaire), since he just couldn’t command the kind of energy that a Gates or Soros can.

      And you mention Mennonites — we’ve got many Old Order Mennonite families near us who seem to live very comfortably. Of course, they’ve opted out of the mainstream status system and embraced an alternative community with its own standards of good living. And maybe that’s where Transition can help, by creating a real community where people can find affirmation from family, friends and peers that a simple or even poor life is worthwhile.

  5. says

    Maybe one way to help develop the mental framework to facilitate the transition to the “poverty” of post peak oil life is to regularly remind ourselves that our current relative material luxury is based on: (1) a really dramatic ‘unfreedom’ (i.e., the never-ending need for money, which is controlled by an overclass that requires the vast majority of people to take subordinated roles as wage-slaves to get the money needed to access the “luxury”); and (2) an anti-moral global system of might makes right that enables people in the “First World,” including those in wage-slavery, to attain a more materialistic standard of living on the backs of more impoverished Third World people.

    Another asset in the process of conceptually adapting to a post peak oil world with significantly fewer material goods is the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’s essay on “The Original Affluent Society” [ http://www.eco-action.org/dt/affluent.html ], a demonstration that supposedly backward or ‘unevolved’ hunters and gatherers generally had good, even enviable lives.

    Finally, here’s a little “poem” I wrote on this subject a few years back:

    if there were no radios, no tvs, no cd players,
    no records, no tapes, and no dvds,
    no mp3 players, and no computers,

    people would make their own music

  6. Jim says

    One of the aspects of the simple living movement of the 70’s is that it was partially an outgrowth of the spiritual movement of the sixties.

    That spiritual movement itself had a number of streams leading into it:
    • the spiritual movement of the civil rights movement, with black churches AND the increasing relevance given to shrinking faith communities (Jewish, mainstream protestant, catholic)
    • the renewal & modernization of the catholic church by Pope John the 23rd
    • the psychedelic movement, which turned into another stream supporting the Eastern philosophy movement

    Given these, and many other strains, the simple living movement wasn’t just a rejection of material culture, but a focus on more important things.

    For some reason, however, this culture moment shifted away in the late 70’s, and Reaganism replaced it.

  7. John Anderse says

    Thoreau pierced my world when I was a teen, and never left my consciousness.

    I’m now 49.

    For years I was an advocate of voluntary simplicity. I like the term voluntary poverty, and feel right about it describing my situation into the future.

    We recently got rid of our automobile, and look forward to the rest of our lives car free. We also enjoy lots of vegetables from the garden.

    My carpet cleaning business failed, and now I am a janitor working for a cleaning company cleaning condos for the rich.

    I ride the light rail, take my book along, and volunteer in a history museum.

    Life is good, and we expect it to get better as we continue to see our status slip away.

  8. says

    Is there another way? One that can draw from past wisdom and create the conditions that will allow us to thrive — not just survive — in the future. I think that we can organize a society that provides a right livelihood and a quality life for a majority for the population while reducing our energy consumption by 90%. Imagine a world without interest or debt — a world where you own the bank rather than the bank owning you. Imagine a world where access is more important than possession. Imagine a world where property rights are expansive rather than confining. While making a transition to a world such as this is not probable, it is possible.

  9. Rick Krz says

    In my early working life I was constantly feeling dissatisfied. No matter what I worked toward, when it was acquired, I felt all the work wasn’t worth it. After a couple of decades of that I decided enough was enough. I now work 4 hours a day 5 days a week. I show up to work somewhere around noon. I live 15 minutes from most of what I need and so removed the need of a vehicle. I walk to work or ride my bicycle. I now have plenty of time to read or do projects or just to think for as long as I want. I find people have a hard time understanding why I would voluntarily choose a life like this (yes, I’m poor). I find I can put it into prespective for them by a saying I have, “You know when you have a lot of money and you’re a millionaire? Well, I decided my time was worth more than mere money. I now have all the time in the world and I guess that makes me a minute-millionaire”. I’ve been living this way for about 15 years. I haven’t had a tv for over 25 years and find I cannot stand to even see the commercials when I glance at a tv in a store or at a friend’s home. Every day I wake up when I feel like it. This way of life suits me much more than what society had planned for me.

    • says

      Working such a civilized schedule sounds great. And it doesn’t sound like you miss much of what you had to give up to become a minute millionaire (a great term, by the way).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *